BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
A new documentary about the Catholic Church and homosexuality, Taking a Chance on God, is really a love story, according to the movie’s subject, Father John McNeill.
“This film is about my partner Charlie and our 46-year love affair,” said McNeill, now 86 and living in Hollywood. “The message is that God loves gay lovers and approves of them.”
Certainly, the Vatican didn’t approve of McNeill breaking his vow of celibacy and his longtime romance with Charles Chiarelli.
“I ignored that prohibition,” said McNeill on Wednesday, a day before Taking a Chance on God will be shown at the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. “I’ve had a lover the last 46 years. He’ll be with me tomorrow night [at the screening].”
McNeill entered the Jesuit order after being freed as a German POW following World War II.
“I always knew I was gay. I tried to be closeted but that didn’t succeed. I just abstained from sexual life,” he said. Becoming a priest offered McNeill refuge. “Part of the motive was to support my effort to live a celibate life. But that wasn’t the only reason. I wanted to be able to bring the message of God’s love to my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”
In 1972, he founded Dignity/New York, an organization for gay and lesbian Catholics. Four years later, he published a book, The Church and the Homosexual, which is still in print.
"I don’t want any part of the church's homophobia," McNeill said. "I was bringing a message that God brought to me. God’s love is universal and includes both gay and straight people."
The church didn’t like McNeill’s teachings. “At one point the Vatican ordered me to silence. I kept that silence for nine years,” he said. “Then AIDS came along and I couldn’t in good conscience be silent any longer.”
McNeill was silenced by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Under orders from the Vatican, the Jesuits expelled McNeill in 1987.
“It was very painful,” McNeill said of his expulsion. “I had been a Jesuit for 40 years. But I felt obliged in conscience to defend the rights of gay people to a sexual life.”
“John became a hero to me the way Harvey Milk and other pioneers of the gay liberation movement had,” Fay said. “John is often a hidden figure. An unknown pioneer. There are not many who are aware of the dramatic impact and significance he had on the movement for change in society and the church in the early ‘70s.”
McNeill’s name appears on the homepage of Dignity USA: “Priest, Prophet, Patriarch of gay Catholic liberation.”
He and Chiarelli, now 76, moved to Broward County in 1997. They married in Canada in 2008. Both attend Sunshine Cathedral, a Metropolitan Community Church in Fort Lauderdale.
“About half their members are ex-Catholics” McNeill said. “They call themselves ‘exiled Catholics’ or ‘recovering Catholics.’ They’re all gay men and women who want to be out of the closet and hold on to their religious beliefs.”